Special issue Culture and Religion – Aesthetics of religious authority

Together with Marleen de Witte (University of Amsterdam) and Thijl Sunier (VU University Amsterdam) I edited a special volume of the journal Culture and Religion on the aesthetics of religious leadership. The different contributions were presented earlier in 2012 in the seminar Aesthetics of religious leadership at VU University:

Seminar: Aesthetics of religious leadership – C L O S E R

Religious leaders of different backgrounds across the world increasingly manifest themselves in the public sphere. Through public performances and modern social media they build communities, create audiences, and convey their messages. On Friday the 21st of September 2012 the anthropological department of the VU University in Amsterdam, in cooperation with the Radboud University of Nijmegen organizes a one-day symposium on the ‘aesthetics of religious leadership’. The aim of the meeting is to explore how recent international scholarly discussions on aesthetics, mediation, and the senses can contribute to our understanding of the role of sensory modes (image, sound and performance) and experiences in the development of new forms of religious persuasion, new modes of religious performance and shifting sources of authority.

On behalf of my colleagues I would like to thank all the contributors for their interesting and important contributions to this field of research. I have listed the abstracts below with the links to download the complete articles (paywall alert):

Aesthetics of religious authority: introduction – Marleen de Witte, Martijn de Koning & Thijl Sunier

This special issue brings together anthropologists in the field of religion with the aim of exploring the aesthetic dimensions of authority in religious leadership.* Taking aesthetics to refer to the range of sensory forms and experiences that shape the relation between religious practitioners and leaders, the contributing authors set out to explore the role of aesthetic forms and performative practices in the making of religious authority. What kind of shifts and changes can be observed in religious leadership practices? In what particular situations and encounters is religious leadership produced? What does the use of media do to the nature and diversity of such encounters? What do particular contestations over the public representation of religion reveal with regard to the making of authority and its transformations in recent years? How do novel forms of mediation and authority production speak to registers of authenticity and sincerity? This introduction situates these questions in the context of recent scholarly discussions on aesthetics, mediation, and the senses and outlines three angles from which the authors explore them: (1) changing sources of religious authority, (2) the dynamics of leadership and (3) the anthropology of events.

Mediating authority: media technologies and the generation of charismatic appeal in southern Mali – Dorothea E. Schulz

This article offers a close analysis of the media performances of a particularly successful preacher in Mali, Sheikh Chérif Haidara, to study how authority is generated in the interaction between a leader and his followers, and to examine the role of mass mediation in this process. Informed by Weber’s reflections on the nature of charismatic authority, the article takes charisma as a form of appeal that is mediated through aesthetic forms, and remediated and ‘channelled’ by virtue of particular media strategies and formats. By raising questions about the nature of charismatic attraction and by illustrating under what conditions it becomes effective, the article contributes to recent scholarship that addresses the role of the aesthetic in the validation or ‘authentication’ of religious experience.

Pentecostal pastorpreneurs and the global circulation of authoritative aesthetic styles – Miranda Klaver

This article argues that the rise of ‘pastorpreneurs’ in global neo-Pentecostalism calls for an aesthetic perspective on religious authority and leadership in the context of new media. Different from mainline churches, religious leadership in neo-Pentecostal (In many parts of the world, neo-Pentecostal or new Pentecostal churches have emerged since the 1980s. They are usually independent churches, organized in loose national or transnational networks, Anderson 2004) churches is not legitimised by denominational traditions and the ordination of clergy but by ‘pastorpreneurs’, (Twitchell uses the term pastorpreneurs to describe megachurch pastors who by using marketing techniques and other entrepreneurial business skills create stand-alone religious communities that challenge top-down denominationalism (2007:3). The term is also used from an emic perspective. In 2003 John Jackson published a book called Pastorpreneurs, Friendswood: Baxter) pastors who combine entrepreneurial business skills and an orthodox Christian message, fostering a neo-Pentecostal style of spirituality. The emergence of this new mode of religious leadership described as ‘pastorpreneurs’ is investigated in a thriving Pentecostal megachurch located at the heart of the Dutch Bible belt. As the Dutch case demonstrates, the rapid development of new media technology creates and facilitates a rapid spread of performative authoritative modes of leadership on a global scale. Pentecostal megachurches in different parts of the world, because of their size and success and presence in the online world, operate as authoritative centres of divine blessing, inspiration and even God’s presence. So, it is not doctrine that binds people together but rather shared aesthetic forms that have the capacity to evoke religious experiences and the tangible felt presence of God.

Blurring boundaries: aesthetics, performance, and the transformation of Islamic leadership – Hilary Kalmbach

This article demonstrates the importance of performance – and in particular performances that blur boundaries between aesthetical styles – to the emergence and impact of ‘new religious intellectuals’, a group that radically transformed Islamic leadership in the twentieth century and were involved in setting up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1928.This article builds on previous work on performance and the legitimation of Islamic leadership to show that aesthetics should be considered alongside education and discourse as a differentiating factor between new religious intellectuals and the ‘ulama’. Drawing on Birgit Meyer’s approach to aesthetics, it argues that aesthetical styles formed a crucial part of the vocabulary of the performances through which leadership and group belonging was legitimised in interwar Egypt. This emphasises further that the legitimation of leadership is about more than demonstrating intellectual mastery of information and techniques, whether Islamic or European-influenced. Finally, the article demonstrates the importance of blurring boundaries to sociocultural change and specifically to the emergence of new religious intellectuals in interwar Egypt, because it highlights how early new religious intellectuals straddled the boundary separating the ‘ulama’ from the efendiyya to establish themselves as religious leaders for the self-consciously modern efendiyya. While early new religious intellectuals drew on hybrid educational backgrounds, their vocation and discourse were fairly closely matched to the efendiyya. Instead, it was in the area of aesthetics that the most blurring occurred, with leaders performing elements of both ‘ulama’ and efendiyya aesthetics to establish legitimacy as both social leaders and religious authorities within the efendiyya.

Worldings: the aesthetics of authority among Catholic Charismatics in Brazil – Maria José A. de Abreu

In this article, I show how conceptions of religious authority among Catholic Charismatics in Brazil relate to particular aesthetic regimes. By aesthetic regime I mean the processes of decision-making by which a particular economy of the visible is negotiated and situated, the underlying forces that constitute what is sensory apprehensible and what remains latent, one might say, unworlded. Focusing on the relation Catholic Charismatics have with the statue of Christ Redeemer standing at the Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, the text engages with the material politics of this religious movement and the theological domains that undergird it.

A moment of persuasion: travelling preachers and Islamic pedagogy in the Netherlands – Daan Beekers

In this article, I examine the discursive as well as embodied and sensorial forms of persuasion that undergird the formation of religious authority, Islamic authority in the Netherlands more specifically. I argue that particular momentary occasions can play important roles in facilitating the mobilisation of these discursive and non-discursive forms of persuasion. Based on a close reading of an event I participated in during my fieldwork among young Muslims in the Netherlands, the analysis focuses on such a key moment of persuasion, paradoxically characterised by a preacher’s apparently failed attempt at conversion. Despite this failure, this preacher can be seen to have succeeded in offering his young Muslim audience a model of how to be a Muslim and of how to represent Islam to non-Muslims. Apart from contributing to anthropological debates on Islamic authority in Europe and religious persuasion more generally, I discuss an important new type of Islamic leaders – referred to here as ‘travelling preachers’ – and the new kinds of youth-centred settings of religious learning in which they operate.

Tariq Ramadan: fashion or fiqh? The powerful charisma of an advocate of Islam in the West – Ellen van de Bovenkamp

Why is Tariq Ramadan, who built his reputation on his vision on Islam in European society, so popular in Morocco? During my interviews with several Moroccan students and young professionals about the thinking of Swiss Muslim intellectual Ramadan, I discovered that they were not so much interested in his ideas about Islam. They like Tariq Ramadan because they’re impressed by his presence, his ability to speak up and put forward his personal opinions, and his role in the media as a porte-parole of Muslims, defending them against prejudices and verbal attacks by Westerners. Tariq Ramadan meets all the characteristics of Alexandre Dorna’s leader charismatique (Dorna 2008). The Swiss philosopher essentially thanks his stardom in Morocco to his charismatic personality and the modern martyrdom he embodies by defending – on his own – the image of Islam in the West.

The weeping sermon: persuasion, binding and authority within the Gülen-movement – Thijl Sunier & Mehmet Sahin

One of the remarkable aspects of the weekly meetings (sohbet) organised by the followers of Fethullah Gülen is the so-called weeping sermon. The visual depiction of the weeping sermon, where Fethullah Gülen bursts into tears, after which his followers intensively weep during a certain period, hardly reveals the implications of the ritual. Weeping sermons are not just emotional performances, or modes of enchantment. They are part of a larger mediating practice common in the Gülen movement. It has persuasive qualities in three regards: (1) participating in a weeping sermon is a form of bodily moral attunement. It is part of a broader trajectory of religious training and disciplining and enhances spiritual and pious competence. (2) The total ritual including preparations has implications for the internal binding between followers and the forming of community. And (3) the ritual reconfirms and reproduces religious authority. We argue that the specific features of the sessions and the ways in which followers are involved in them, demonstrate how religious knowledge production, authorisation and ritual practice are inextricably linked to one another and come together in the sermon.

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